An analogy for the knowledge of God

January 5, 2015

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Henry Sloane Coffin is one of the most delightful writers that I have ever read, similar to George Buttrick. There is something about that generation. In the excerpt below, Coffin offers an illustration for our knowledge of God, using “great authors” as an analogy for God’s self-disclosure. In Coffin’s day, personalism was a favorite means to articulate the Christian faith. Emil Brunner was perhaps its greatest exponent in systematic theology.

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To know God — what a presumptuous statement! In what sense is it possible? Knowledge of anything depends upon some fitness in us to the object to be known. The same vibrations of ether are to the skin heat, and to the eye light. The same vibrations of the air are to the body an imperceptible tremor and to the ear sound. We have to develop the organ which equips us to interpret anything and to understand it. And this is emphatically so of our knowledge of persons. An English critic some years ago said: “To understand some writers we must change our planet and wait patiently till we are acclimatized.” Great authors as a rule have to educate a public to appreciate them, and often they wait years, perhaps until they themselves are dead, to be prized and understood. We can all think of books that meant nothing to us once. We wondered why anyone praised them. But we have since grown up to them, and have come back to them with eagerness. Life’s experiences have developed in us the capacities to interpret what was once lost upon us. It is often said that no hero is a hero to his valet. That is not because the hero is no hero, but because the valet is a valet.

[Joy in Believing, ed. Walter Russell Bowie, pp. 58-59.]

As with any analogy, it can be criticized. God is not just a very eloquent novelist, waiting for our maturation. There is a necessary dialectical otherness that is missing, but that is the risk of all analogies.

As some of you may remember, I blogged an excerpt from Coffin previously: “Faith Without Apologetics.”

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Image: Reformation Bible College

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